Upper East Side Story

6 Dec

Woody Allen has always been an acquired taste. If you do not like him, do not read this post; however, be warned that this is not the last time I will be writing about one of his films. On the other hand, if you’re a fan, or even if you’re  “Allen-curious,” then stick around because I’m going to write about one of Allen’s least known but most entertaining movies.

That’s the real Hemingway on the right, and Cory Stoll on the left as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Stoll snags an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He’s already snagged an Independent Spirit nomination. Furthermore, he has reportedly been tapped to read Hemingway’s letters later this month at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Allen lately mainly because of his magical Midnight in Paris, the best reviewed Allen movie in quite a few years–since 2005’s Match Point–okay, or maybe 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  Allen’s latest is also a solid hit that’s been playing in theaters since early June.  Say what?  I feel confident that Allen will earn yet another Best Original Screenplay nomination to add to his impressive Oscar track record. He is, in fact, the Academy’s most nominated screenwriter with a total of two wins (Annie Hall, 1977; Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986) out of 14 nominations (see below). He was last nominated for the aforementioned Match Point. Of course, Allen has never coveted Academy approval. He’s certainly never refused a nomination or an award, but he’s never actively campaigned either.

His Midnight in Paris is all about an American screenwriter (Owen Wilson) on vacation in France who catches a phantom taxi cab at night that transports him back to Paris in the 1920’s. Once there, the writer deals with his existential crisis by consorting with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dali, among others. For this viewer, the standouts in the large cast are Corey Stoll and Marion Cotillard. The former plays Hemingway as robustly as his legend demands; the latter, already an Oscar winner for her rich performance as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, is a stunner as a woman who beautifully personifies the whole spirit of the so-called “Lost Generation.”

Midnight in Paris isn’t due out on DVD/Blu-Ray for a few more weeks–December 20th. Can you believe that? Almost too late to be purchased as a Xmas gift. In the meantime, why not visit, or revisit, Allen’s 1996 offering, Everyone Says I Love You, which does offer one nighttime scene set in Paris. When I started writing this blog over the summer, one of the first movies I wrote about was 1971’s The Boyfriend, Ken Russell’s deconstructionist parody of old-time movie musicals. In that same article, I referred to subsequent films, such as Cabaret (1972), Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Chicago (2002), that played with the conventions of musical comedies by largely confining the singing and dancing routines to the realms of nightclub stages and the imagination rather than ask modern audiences to accept characters who break-out into song in a way that is antithetical to real-life.  To illustrate: I happen to love West Side Story, and I accept its depiction of balletic New York City gang members as a stylized approach to storytelling while cynics take the movie way too seriously and bemoan its lack of realism: real gang members would never be caught performing ballet on the streets of NYC.   The approach of The Boyfriend and the others is a way to bridge the gap between musical enthusiasts and the skeptics. Similarly, Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You  both subverts and affirms old and new assumptions regarding musicals.

Right to left: Woody Allen directs Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You.

Allen doesn’t create a fanciful dream world for his characters to escape to when they want to sing and dance. No, their production numbers take place all over New York City, mostly the Upper East Side, as well as Venice and Paris, yet Allen doesn’t settle for the conventional postcard backdrops. Instead, he finds some unlikely settings. Okay, there’s the luxe Harry Winston jewelry store, but there’s also a hospital emergency ward, a taxicab, and even a funeral home. Then, in an extraordinary twist, Allen casts actors, including himself, who are not known for their singing abilities. The idea is that when people are in love, they feel like singing and when they sing, they feel beautiful–like people in glamorous old movies–they just don’t necessarily sound as beautiful as they feel. Most of the songs are standards, such as “Just You, Just Me” and “Makin’ Whoopee”; likewise, when the characters hurt, they also want to express their anguish in old-fashioned torch songs, mostly “I’m Through with Love.” Allen’s approach differs from that of, say, Chicago, in which the audience sees and hears the characters as they imagine themselves when they break into song.  Watching Allen’s dedicated bunch put on their game faces and use their tentative, unadorned voices to warble their way through one song after another is alternately touching and a little jarring, but the damn thing works as well as it does for two reasons, the first of which is that while much of the singing is definitely amateurish, there ‘s only one truly dreadful vocal performance, and that distinction belongs to Julia Roberts. She plays Allen’s would-be love interest, and it’s already a negligible, badly conceived role. Her singing only makes it worse. Be warned: her version of  “All My Life” is only one cringe away from being declared cruel and inhumane. Apparently, Drew Barrymore–who’s lovely in a debutante way–was so mortified by the thought of singing that she agreed to do the movie only on the condition that she be dubbed. Even so, the voice that comes out of her–credited to Olivia Hayman–is believable, and her solo, as she prepares for a big date with her future fiancee, is a charming interlude. On the other hand, some of the performers acquit themselves quite admirably, especially Goldie Hawn (who has a background in musical comedy), Alan Alda, and even Tim Roth–as a deranged career criminal, no less.

Another reason why the musical numbers work as well as they do is that Allen pretty much films them the old fashioned way, that is, proscenium style as though on a Broadway stage with very little editing. What’s so big about that? Well, thanks mainly to the popularity of music videos back in the 1980s (when the “M” in MTV still stood for something–and that something, to clarify, was music), movie audiences have become accustomed to seeing production numbers that are more or less pieced together to the rhythms of a given music track, to the degree that regardless of how good the singing and dancing is, the scenes are amped to maximum levels of excitement in the editing room. Generally speaking this is the model that’s been in place ever since the likes of Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984), which were musicals of a sort, all the way up through Chicago. Even Evita, which came out at the same time as Everyone Says I Love You, and which I also loved and saw in theatres 3-4 times, features a lot of great songs wonderfully rendered, but many of the numbers are more like montages–music videos–than the kinds of intricate routines that made musicals so charming in the first place.  Please, don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the combination of fancy footwork and flashy editing in these movies and more, but there’s also something exhilarating about seeing hoofers strut their stuff more or less in real time: teams of dancers’ whole bodies entirely visible as they perform complicated choreography perfectly in sync, thereby freeing–inviting–viewers’ eyes to look where they want and taking in as much of the whole thrilling sensation as possible, as opposed to camera and editing tricks that force the eye to look where/when the director thinks is important–oh, and none of that infuriatingly coy crap that marred Richard Gere’s Chicago tapdance, shot mostly in silhouette.

That’s Edward Norton on the far left, trying to keep up with the rest of the guys in the “My Baby Just Cares for Me” number. Norton appeared in two other films in 1996, his first year as a professional screen actor. His trio of acclaimed performances resulted in a number of awards at the end of the year, including Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review,  and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  He also won Most Promising Actor from the Chicago Film Critics. He officially netted a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination that year for his well modulated turn in the dark, if gimmicky, courtroom thriller Primal Fear. 

Of course, Woody Allen is nothing if not a comedian at heart, so he adds a dash or two of unexpected humor in almost every number. One such bit that best exemplifies Allen’s approach is “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” in which Ed Norton’s preppie klutz tries to keep up with a team of business suited dancers right smack dab in the middle of the  fabled Harry Winston jewelry store (or a reasonable facsimile of Winston’s).  Norton’s clueless goofiness is oddly endearing, but those dancers are the real stars. Their routine is no mere soft shoe exercise but a full scale athletic tap dance complete  with jeweled jump-roping, if you can believe that. Not only that, the whole lot of them are wearing business suits and ties. Imagine the skill involved to make it look as effortlessly swinging as it does. Another extended gag occurs during the “Making Whoopee” number which, as previously noted, takes place in a hospital emergency ward. In this case, there are multiple levels of humor at work, including the reason for the trip to the ER in the first place (no spoilers!), and the interplay between the doctors, nurses, and patients, including expectant mothers, one heavily bandaged individual, a man in a straightjacket, and another fellow on crutches. In this instance,  Allen opts for a roving camera rather than a proscenium approach though the whole vignette is presented with few, if  any, edits.  Furthermore, even with a roving camera, Allen’s dancers are navigating a rather tight space, which makes the overall effect even  more remarkable.

A few other bits are worth noting because Allen provides a touch of whimsy–not to mention a few special effects for the kiddies. In the “Enjoy Yourself” number, Allen utilizes a little optical wizardry to make merry during a funeral service. The result  is so odd, so seemingly inappropriate yet precisely on target, that it’s hard not to chuckle. In perhaps the movie’s most beautiful turn, Goldie Hawn takes to the evening sky as she sings the aforementioned classic “I’m Through with Love.” Of course, Hawn is not the first person in a movie to be suspended in air by wires and a harness, but she’s likely the first to do it right there on the banks of the Seine–and a full four years before director Ang Lee won world-wide acclaim for shooting action sequences high among the treetops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one is truly magical. By the way, “I’m Through with Love” gets quite a workout as Allen uses it throughout the film and scores a good laugh or two in the process. Finally, Allen pays effective tribute to the Marx Brothers not once but twice, which only makes sense because two of the songs, including the title track, originally appeared in Marx Brothers’ comedies.

Everyone Says I Love You is consistently entertaining, mostly because of its nifty musical numbers and a few ripe performances. Also, it clocks in at a judicious one hour and forty-one minutes. At the same time, it suffers from a jumble of a script. There’s almost nothing at stake. Instead, there are the various romantic ups and downs experienced by members of  a large wealthy “blended” Manhattan family. As usual, Allen’s take on women can be mystifying. Again, the subplot which contrives to match Woody Allen with Julia Roberts is no fun though Roberts does walk away with the last laugh. On the other hand, even though none of the threads are fully developed, Allen at least tries to make sure that each character’s dilemma features a comic payoff.

Alan Alda (l) dips Goldie Hawn (r) in Woody Allen’s 1996 film, Everyone Says I Love You. That same year, Hawn co-starred with Allen’s most beloved leading lady Diane Keaton in The First Wives Club.

Among the large ensemble, three performers standout among the rest. First, there’s Ed Norton. Everyone Says I Love You is one of three 1996 in which he appeared. To clarify, it was also his first year as a professional screen actor; the other two were The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Primal Fear. Though his performances in all three films generated multiple awards consideration at the end of 1996, his Oscar nomination was for a striking turn as a murder defendant in the latter. In Everyone Says I Love You, Norton scores as a young WASPish lawyer who wears his heart of his sleeve though he performs a nifty trick in one scene in which he channels the nervous jitters of Allen’s frequent onscreen persona.  Next on the list has to be Goldie Hawn, as a “guilty liberal democrat,” who peppers a few tart one-liners throughout most of the film, and then, as already noted, taps into her sheer star power during the climactic “I’m Through with Love” number and seizes the screen. Like Norton, Hawn was a strong presence in 1996, earning a Satellite nod for the Allen film and sharing a Screen Actors Guild nomination with the cast of the blockbuster comedy The First Wives Club. The third most important cast member is Natasha Lyonne, who plays Allen’s daughter and serves as the film’s narrator. Lyonne had already amassed a few credits when Allen cast her as D.J.  but most of her work existed under the radar. Here, she gets a chance to shine, keeping up with Allen in scene after scene–the red hair helps make them a believable father-daughter team–and exuding sheer elation when being serenaded in a taxi cab by then newcomer Billy Crudup. Lyonne has fallen off the radar these past few years–noticeably, if not completely–but she went on to a host of attention getting roles in rapid succession, including the likes of American Pie, The Slums of Beverly Hills, and But I’m a Cheerleader. The rest of the sizable cast includes, in alphabetical order:  Lukas Haas (whose character is the butt of a priceless twist), Edward Hibbert, Gaby Hoffman, Itzhak Perlman (as himself), Natalie Portman, and David Ogden Stiers (his fourth of five appearances in Allen’s films). Also deserving of special shout-outs are veteran character actor (since deceased) Patrick Cranshaw as the spirited grandpa of the clan, Trude Klein as the no-nonsense housekeeper (listen to the way she barks out the words, “Bavarian pasta”), and Robert Khakh as a particularly enthusiastic cabdriver. By the way: besides the performance nods that Norton and Hawn snared, the movie bagged a nomination from the Casting Society of America.

Even though Everyone Says I Love You  is unmistakably Allen, credit for this splendid production must be shared with a sterling crew starting with choreographer Graciela Daniele, music director Dick Hyman, and legendary cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, whose filmography includes a whopping dozen movies for Allen (beginning with Hannah and Her Sisters) as well as Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966’s landmark Blow-Up.  Even though the Academy looked elsewhere during the 1996/97 awards season, thereby depriving Allen of yet another Oscar nomination, Everyone… earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, losing that race to the equally deserving–and possibly better promoted–Evita (and against the likes of Jerry Maguire and Fargo, both of which went on to figure heavily at the Oscars). Additionally, Allen’s film impressed the voting bodies of both the French César and European Film awards, securing slots in the equivalent foreign film categories.

Believe it or not, Everyone Says I Love You is a great holiday flick. The movie begins with springtime in New York–seldom more breathtaking–and ends in Paris on the following Christmas Eve when everything and everyone are at their most giddy and festive. It’s almost like being in love.

Thanks for your consideration…

Woody Allen’s Oscar Nominations (w= winner):

  • Best Original Screenplay
  1. Annie Hall (1977) w
  2. Interiors (1978)
  3. Manhattan (1979)
  4. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
  5. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
  6. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) w
  7. Radio Days (1987)
  8. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  9. Alice (1990)
  10. Husbands and Wives (1992)
  11. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
  12. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
  13. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
  14. Match Point (2005)
  • Best Director
  1. Annie Hall (1977) w
  2. Interiors (1978)
  3. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
  4. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
  5. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  6. Bullets over Broadway (1994)
  • Additionally, Allen claims one Best Actor nomination–for Annie Hall. Also, the only Allen films to compete for Best Picture are Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. Annie Hall won, natch, but since Allen does not receive a producer’s credit on his own films, he did not take home the trophy–not that he ever seemed to care about the Oscars in the first place.
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